A mop-topped redhead with oversize glasses that magnified his gray eyes, 6-year-old Alex Donley was always on the prowl for someone he could cheer up with a hug and a gap-toothed smile. He would walk up to his grandmother’s friend who had Parkinson’s disease, stroke her trembling arms, and say, “I love you.” Or play with the boy with Down’s syndrome whom the other kids ignored. Or put his arms around his grieving teacher and say, “Don’t worry, your aunt is in heaven.”
He was Nancy and Tom Donley’s only child, and his mother guarded his every move. “Until he was 6, I wouldn’t even let him in the backyard by himself,” she says. “In stores, he had to be with me every single second. His seat belt went on automatically. I would have thrown myself in front of a bus to protect him. I would have done anything.”
But all of her caution couldn’t save Alex from the effects of a tainted hamburger he ate at a family backyard cookout in July 1993. On a Tuesday afternoon, seemingly out of nowhere, the boy was seized with stomach pains. Nancy Donley took Alex to his pediatrician, who looked at the results of a quick blood test and said, “There’s something wrong.” By the time they arrived at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Alex was keeling over in pain and was soon having repeated bowel movements of blood and mucus.
For several days, while Alex’s condition spiraled downward, doctors at the hospital struggled to make a diagnosis. “He was in so much pain, and he was constantly in the...